I was browsing through some online material recently and came across a conversation between a non-believing sceptic and a Christian apologist. The question was asked (right off the top): “Why a virgin birth?” The apologist did a decent job of responding, giving a fairly common explanation of “why Christ had to be born of a virgin.” Something about it left me empty. Thinking about it – I believe my problem was that the question was wrong.
“Why a virgin birth?” Is the question of a philosopher, that is, a question that we put to things rooted in their necessity. It is how we argue points with one another. We say that something must be true…because…and we state the reasons that describe its necessity.
These are often the wrong kinds of questions to ask of God or of the things of God. In God, there is no necessity. He is utterly free and does not exist “because He has to.” If we could state such a reason – then that reason would itself be prior to God. There is no “prior” to God. We want to “make sense” of holy things, or to conclude that they are nonsense. We fail to see that “holy” is what makes sense possible. Holy is prior to sense.
Which brings me back to the Virgin. If the sense-driven question of necessity (“why did Christ have to be born of a virgin?”) is the wrong question, what would be the right one?
In short, the question would be: What does this mean?
The virgin birth is not given to us as an argument of necessity. It is a revelation. It tells us something. And the something it tells us is described as a mystery. There are things about the universe, about God, about our place within all things, that cannot be seen apart from the lens of the virgin birth. More than this, these things will not be known as “facts” (information that we can manipulate and manage for our own ends).
The capacity to see and know without understanding and managing is, in our modern world, something that is often lost and forgotten (or never learned). It is the capacity for wonder and awe, the ground of worship itself. What is forgotten is not just “how” to do this, but that this action is a means of knowing.
The virgin birth is an excellent example of this knowing. In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, the virgin birth (and the Theotokos) are something of a theme that runs throughout all things. She is seen in a host of images: the Burning Bush, the Ark of the Covenant, Aaron’s Rod that Budded, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Uncut Mountain (in Daniel), the Eastern Gate in Ezekiel’s Temple Vision, Jacob’s Ladder, the Fleece of Gideon, and the list goes on…
In considering such a list, we could ask, “How are all of these things like one another?”
I will share some of what I understand in this. The conception of Christ by a virgin is an example of an unexplainable impossibility. It carries with it the familiar shape of a contradiction and paradox. It is not just an impossibility – it is an impossibility that is a contradiction of the very thing itself: virgins to not conceive. It is not what virgins do. And so, Mary accrues titles that are contradictions: Mother of God, Bride Unwedded, etc.
This is not only (though supremely) true of her – it is of a piece with the wisdom of God. We speak of a universe that comes into existence “out of nothing.” Existence from non-existence. A contradiction. The stories within the Scriptures are replete with impossible examples. However, the examples do not point to the mere possibility of miracles. The miracles have a character about them that point towards a pattern and meaning. Miracles themselves are revelatory as are the stories that surround them.
When St. Paul writes of this, it is primarily around the topic of the Cross. The Cross shares the same revelation of God’s wisdom that can be discerned in the Theotokos. Interestingly, no one speaks of the Cross as a “miracle.” Nevertheless, it is the greatest of miracles. It has the mark of paradox and contradiction. St. Paul describes Christ Crucified as the “wisdom and power of God” (1Cor. 1:24). St. Maximos the Confessor said, “He who understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.”
The Cross is apparent weakness and defeat. It is “foolishness,” in the eyes of many, St. Paul notes. But this goes to the heart of God’s work in the world, and, goes to the heart of God’s self-revelation to the world. We like to imagine that we know what the word, “God,” means and frequently apply it to the One described in the Scriptures. Quite often, that “definition” is wrong. The Scriptures show forth God’s self-definition, one that is quite distinct from our popular notions.
“Weakness” and “foolishness” are things that we do not normally associate with God, but are specifically identified with Him in the New Testament. Throughout the testimony of Scripture, there is a consistent preference on the part of God for the weak, the despised, the second-born, the foolish, the least-likely. St. Paul reflects on this:
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty;and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are…” (1Cor. 1:26-28).
Over the course of Christian history, forgetting this character of God’s revelation has led to repeated disasters. The great notorious heresies were often sponsored by emperors. Others were the work of those who imagined themselves to be wise. The abuse of power (which has been all too common in our history) has generally been “in the name of God,” even though God Himself clearly revealed the emptiness of such so-called power.
The life of the Church and its devotion constantly call us back to the truth. We stand before the Virgin, wondering at the weakness of her words to the angel, “Be it unto me according to Your word.” That is true strength. We stand before the Cross in awe and worship, knowing that it is only as the Cross is manifest in our own lives (“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live”) that we can truly know God. There is no salvation apart from the Cross because it is there most definitively that God has revealed Himself to the world. “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.”
In Matins we pray, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.” Our attention is properly directed towards the mystery of salvation hidden within the revelation that is given to us (“Thy statutes”). They are not mastered by memorization or rational analysis. They are made known to us in the depths of the heart as we offer ourselves to God.
It is a mystery in which the Church traditionally prays (again, a contradiction): “Most holy Theotokos, save us!”
Christ is born!
Once again, you help me. Thank you
Thank you Fr. Stephen and the Orthodox church for giving me, as a Western Christian, and someone who attends a Baptist church with my husband, a lens to more properly understand the Scripture I am taught, the holidays I celebrate, and the faith I practice. I spent so many years trying to understand God and my faith rationally and intellectually, and Orthodox teaching finally took my 2-dimensional faith and it became 3-dimensional. And though I cannot always practice and live it out in church the way I feel in my heart, I can still live it out in my life and heart in many ways and see and know Christ more clearly. May God be praised!
You help us all!
I was thinking more about this post’s topic this morning, and remembered that the prophecy in Isaiah regarding the Theotokos specifically describes it as a “sign.” (Is. 7:14). That is of a piece with how I’ve approached it in this article.
I appreciate the metanoia that is necessary to see the Virgin nativity, Christ’s life, death and resurrection as revelation. I don’t remember which of the saints said it but the idea is that if the sole purpose of the Cross was the salvation of the world, God could have found another way to do it. I tried Google, but I can’t find the reference.
Maybe I could get some feedback on this. A question that occasionally crosses my mind is this, ‘Is weakness a principle way in which we are made in the likeness of God?’ In other words, God could have made us all like superman, that’s not a difficult stretch of the imagination. But, we are weak and that weakness is certainly tied in a physiological and psychological sense to our need for community. Maybe weakness, or humility, is foundational to communion.
you have hit the nail on the (again); you’d have made an excellent carpenter.
Missed out head!
I think that this is precisely the sort of thing that approaching all of this as revelation allows us to see.
Without speculating why it is the case, it seems that ‘weakness’ is at the heart of the Trinity. At least in the sense of all those “Nots”.
That last line Father is especially helpful to me! I have little children and a mil who is very hostile to Orthodoxy. Singing that line has always been a small struggle for me.
The apologist has to save Christ from inheriting Original Sin and Guilt. Yet what is revealed is that Christ became/was made sin for us, in order that we become righteous in him (2 Cor 5:21). I was asking myself the question, if there was not necessity, what would be the meaning? I, like you, want to preserve the revelation that God has no necessities. I wanted to see if I drew the same conclusion before I read the whole post. And the following came to mind immediately:
Romans 4:17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed,
who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”
19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
All of those verses (especially 19-22) perfectly parallel the Theotokos. If Abraham is the father of the faith for this reason, his faith that God could/would do the impossible, then the Theotokos is the Mother of the faith for the same reason, only it is a greater reason by way of proximity/intimacy (Abraham cannot offer, neither can anyone else, offer their body in the same way).
I think again, I’ve emphasized several times that the criteria for prophet, to be an authoritative voice, same with the NT Canon, was direct empirical encounter. Add this on, that, the phrase, “the word/Word of the Lord” came to so and so (in the OT) and that next or concurrent, is almost always a description/designation of a person/Person, the Word as with the Angel of the Lord, is the preincarnate Christ. A prophet was a prophet because they saw Christ, just as Paul bases his ministry on this, and expects it to quell factions and dissensions/division based on his fatherly authority given to him in the calling/vision/seeing. The calling and vision are very much the same thing. John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
If you will, apply this same mind to the Theotokos, and you have someone greater than the prophets, greater than the greatest prophet John, greater than Cherubim who must guard their eyes and feet, greater than Moses, greater than Abraham – and you never did one bit of damage to the OT mind/logic or the NT’s. In fact, you used the same mind and treated the Scriptures with the utmost respect.
This apologetic, I came up with it in the last 10 minutes, but when you add on Original Sin, none of this makes any sense. Take it away, and even a die-hard Fundamentalist Baptist will approach an icon of Mary with a kiss and wonder at God’s freedom/wonder at God’s way of doing things. Original Sin hides the contents of the Bible/Tradition/Faith.
All of the rationality for the Theotokos being brought up to, equal and greater than Abraham yet sharing in the same Faith, is there Biblically. It is deductive and inescapable, until you introduce concepts that are foreign to the Bible. When I am stimulated to think these things through, I end up with a greater appreciation for Christ, and also for the Virgin Mary in this case, and for Abraham.
“There is no salvation apart from the Cross because it is there most definitively that God has revealed Himself to the world.”
This itself is quite a revelation! Thank you for this and Glory to God.
Further to the Orthodox dogma on the ever-virginity of the Theotokos (depicted with the 3 stars on her icon), please clarify the dogma on her conception. I think, in contrast to the Roman Catholics, we believe that she inherited the sinful nature of Adam, like all humanity, following the ancestral sin. However she never committed a sin, something which is unique to her.
If this is correct, then per our compline prayer, she is not “spotless, undefiled, immaculate, unstained..” by nature, but she is by grace, correct? By extension, Christ’s human nature does not inherit the ancestral sin, because He is conceived by the Holy Spirit ?
One way to think of this (ancestral sin), is that it is mortality, rather than a propensity to evil. We “were in lifelong bondage from fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). She was mortal, born subject to death. By grace, she preserved her integrity and did not sin.
Interestingly, in the full range of Orthodox thought, there are others thought of this way by some. I’ve read that some Orthodox spiritual fathers held that St. John the Forerunner was without sin (by grace).
Christ’s human nature was, apparently, subject to death (His body died). There was a heresy, aphthartodocetism that held that Christ body was naturally incorruptible. That was condemned.
I think a problem about this is the Western thought-track that made sin and evil (bad choices) to be synonymous. Rather, it is death that is the great issue. Jesus got hungry. Jesus got tired. Etc.
Romanides made a bigger deal about ancestral sin than is actually in the teaching of the Fathers. He was driven to refute the Western teachings on Original Sin, but I think made some mistakes in the process. At least, that’s my opinion.
I will say this as succinctly as I can. My familiarity with genetics and the mystery of life at the molecular level has only augmented my acceptance and belief in the Virginity of the Mother of God. Nothing in science can “argue against” the possibility of such a miracle, ie the “how” of such a miracle. I believe such arguments belong to the ethos of Western Christianity.
As for the question of ‘why’ of the virginity of the Theotokos, I believe the question pertains to the modern culture no longer holding virginity as a virtue. As an antiquated trait, when it becomes important in this culture, it tends to be a point to press in the context of the political wars on abortion. And virginity itself as a virtue, never had an Orthodox meaning in western culture.
I will point to one Orthodox saint (I’ll need to look up who this was–I don’t remember who) who said that he wasn’t a virgin, even while he was a virgin in the Western Christian sense of the word.
I make this point because while it is a stone that causes a fall in the west, among those religions of the east, for example the Jewish Septuagint, acknowledge and doesn’t question the sign of the Virgin. It is taught as a prophesy of the coming times, which they know and we know as the ‘Kingdom of God has come among us’.
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Indeed. Modernity (beginning in the 18th century), tended to think itself wise because it was learning a few scientific tricks. It attacked various traditional doctrines that had “miracles” within them as though it had (at last!) outsmarted the priests and preachers. As time has worn on, it has simply become more foolish. What was hidden in those “miracles” was wisdom – what is lacking in modernity is wisdom. But, sadly, there’s a lot of wisdom lacking even among believers today. We need to regain that “chastity” of the soul that gives rise to it.
I think it was St Basil the great who said that “whilst I have known no woman I am not a virgin”, recognising that virginity applies not just to the body but to the soul too, as confirmed by Christ in Matthew 5,28.
The Orthodox Church has only given the epithet “virgin” to Panagia and St John the Evangelist.
Dee, thank you. Your insight on The Theotokos is a balm to my soul.
You have said in this essay and previously that the Cross most definitively reveals the eternal character of God. This is profoundly helpful to me and seems (not surprisingly) of one piece with the Orthodox understanding of salvation as union with God. I hope this question will not press the point too far, but is this revelatory aspect of the Cross its primary (or perhaps even only) meaning? It is common among Western Christians to think that the Cross was in some sense “transactional” (not sure of the right word here) and was something that “needed to happen.” Is there some truth to this, or would it be safe instead to think of the Cross as primarily revelatory?
Thank you Nikolaos! That’s the quote indeed.
It is what Christ accomplishes on the Cross and how it is accomplished that reveals God. His death (which is “voluntary” in the words of St. John Chrysostom), is an act of self-emptying love. It is a death that “tramples down death,” which is to say that His death on the Cross is also His descent into Hades where death is destroyed. It is God taking to Himself the totality of suffering, uniting Himself to the most tragic circumstance of creation, making it His own. Of course, all of that is united with Him in His resurrection.
There is no “transaction” in the sense of an action that “pays off” the wrath of God, etc. Though St. Basil uses the language of His death as a “ransom,” St. Gregory the Theologian makes it clear that the ransom is not being paid to the devil, nor to God. It is a metaphor, that refers to His defeat of death.
So something is done – is accomplished – though not in the manner of some Western accounts (where the Father is almost portrayed as an enemy). Indeed, something must be accomplished or there would be nothing to reveal.
Dear Fr Stephen,
Can you say a little more about wisdom in modernity? I’ve heard you say before that we need to stop trying to be wise. I’m thinking this must apply to us as individuals. I know I have a problem of trying to be wise in conversation with others, which usually amounts to trying to find the right quote to drop on someone about whatever they’re talking about. In your response to Dee above, you said modernity and some believers even, don’t have wisdom. How can we acquire wisdom in the right way?
James, excellent query. I have fenced with that question a long time. The one thing I have come to is there is a fullness and wholeness to wisdom that sets it apart from knowledge alone.
Everything else is still on the project shelf.
Dear Father Stephen and friends,
Last night reading here before bed, I was especially taken by these words: “… The capacity to see and know without understanding and managing is, in our modern world, something that is often lost and forgotten (or never learned). It is the capacity for wonder and awe, the ground of worship itself…”
Before rising this morning, these sung words came to me “The women disciples at the tomb…” I wondered why; it sounded so familiar. I follow the Old Calendar, so the Nativity is ahead, but approaching. I decided it must be one of the tones as it sounded like the Christmas Nativity hymn, so I looked, and yes! It was:Tone 4. Not only that, it was the tone for this coming week, ending old Christmas Eve.
This doesn’t always happen, of course. (I checked to make sure). But, oh my, that verse says all you have been saying about the Virgin Birth.
And how did it come just now into my head? I don’t usually pay as much attention as I should to the Tones. I hope from now on, I will.
The kind of wisdom we do not need is the sort that seeks to manage the world. To think we know what we do not know (which is actually not wisdom but foolishness of the worst kind).
There is, though, a kind of foolishness that is true wisdom. That wisdom is born from humility. Humility, in a nutshell, is the willingness of “bear a little shame,” to admit to ourselves and others, for example, what we do not know.
There can be very strong opinions, for example, in which we loudly argue and defend things that are more or less ideas or ideology – but are things that are actualized in our lives.
I think that a practical way of gaining true wisdom is to walk and live honestly, bearing the little shame that goes along with our place in the world. It’s ok not to know everything. And it’s better to live with integrity the things that we actually know.
Look up Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims. They’re about as practical as it gets.
“Now that the day has passed, we glorify thee O Savior and entreat you, O Lord, that the evening with the night may be without offense. Grant this to us O Savior and save us. “
Michael and Fr Stephen,
Thank you both for your replies.
Thank you for the helpful explanation and for your patience with so many questions. May God continue to bless you and your writing. Happy new year!
The confusion between ‘belief’ and ‘psychological certainty’ is tragic. Saying that we know for sure that which cannot be known for sure or that which we think we should know for sure only sets us up for unnecessary conflict. We can faithfully live in our ignorance. With myself I notice that I feel this strange internal conflict when it comes to the faith. If I am illumined, then why am I living in the dark? What’s wrong (with me) that I am so ignorant? That’s the wrong kind of shame at work. It seems to me that shame is how God raises us up. It is better to bear a little shame with our ignorance than to pretend we know things we don’t or worse convince ourselves that we know things we really don’t.
It may be more helpful to bear a little shame with humility. I recall the monastery where the nuns refuse to discuss or debate modern issues, answering all such statements with “I don’t know about that” before going on/back to their work. Allowing ourselves to be viewed as ignorant by others may be the little bit of shame that we have such trouble bearing…. Even our humility may be a matter of communion. It seems to me that this communion keeps us from thinking in terms of “improvement”.
Just thinking aloud.
I know this guy who seems to feel obligated to have certainty about ideas that to my mind he isn’t justified in having. It is as if not being certain is the first step down the slippery slope to apostasy. I take comfort that the ontological nature of Orthodoxy draws us away from conflicts about ideas. I know that I am Simon. That is an ontological statement. I know that my identity is one that comes from communion with the Church, the Saints, and Christ. Oddly, I never seem to doubt that at all. In some ways it might be the only thing I really ‘know’. I know that I am Simon, and that in a strange way continues to operate as the foundation for everything else I hope for.
You, indeed, are Simon!
Great comments Byron (as always)! Thank you!
Thank you for sharing this, Father. Your highlighting of the thread of mysteries-as-paradoxes is quite insightful.
Have you come across the phrase “fetal microchimerism”? Essentially, some of the baby’s cells transfer to the mother while the baby still in the uterus, and these cells can continue to live for many many years after the child’s birth, (possibly the entire life of the mother). Some studies have found that these fetal cells assist the mother years later when fighting infection or illness, etc.
It’s a particularly interesting thing because it can provide “scientific support” for two teachings: the virginity of Mary and the bodily assumption of Mary.
For her to be a spotless tabernacle, a pure vessel for the physical formation of Jesus, then it makes sense that if those fetal cells transferred to Mary and remained alive in her, that then they would also be unmingled.
And, at the end of her life, it also makes sense that all of her body plus Jesus’ fetal cells would be assumed into Heaven.
I hope this makes sense, and I hope that if I have stepped into error you all will please forgive me and discount it.
I am not specifically familiar with Orthodox teachings.